I am clearly missing something here. Jennifer Holm has been honored by three different Newbery committees for her novels Our Only May Amelia, Penny from Heaven, and Turtle in Paradise. Despite never getting past the first third of Our Only May Amelia and pretty much detesting every moment I spent reading Turtle in Paradise, I dutifully checked out a copy of her latest novel, The Trouble with May Amelia, as soon as my library received its copies. It is, of course, generating some award buzz this year. Honestly I just don't get it. If you enjoy historical fiction from the point of view of plucky young girls then there is much to enjoy here. I certainly liked it far more than I have the other works I have tried by this author, but there were still a multitude of things that annoyed me about it.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
May Amelia lives in pioneer Washingon State in 1900, and she just can't act the part of a proper young lady. Working a farm on the rainy Nasel River isn't easy - especially when you have seven brothers and a Pappa who proclaims that Girls Are Useless. May Amelia thinks she may have finally earned her father's respect when he asks her to translate for a gentleman who's interested in buying their land and making them rich. But when the deal turns out to be a scam, Pappa places all the blame on May. It's going to take a lot of sisu - that's Finnish for guts - to make things right.
This novel does a pretty good job accurately depicting life in a logging/farming community in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th century. Life for the Jackson family is difficult and there are many terrible things that befall them and their neighbors. It was a precarious way to live and that was conveyed well, as was the close knit community of immigrants from the same country and the attitude toward schooling. I did find it a stretch to think that May Amelia had at some point befriended a Chinese boy and a lady who ran a tavern in Astoria. (Maybe this is because I haven't read the first book?) The book,while having a main plot thread of the land deal running through it, is mostly snap shots of what life was like for the people in such a community.
As for the character of May Amelia herself, she is certainly sympathetic. I did feel for her and her situation(s) as the story unfolded. This is a first person narrative and I felt that her character was remote and rather bland for that format. She only identifies herself as the people around her identify her, which is true to life for children in many ways, however by the age of 12 most children start to question who they are in relation to those around them and May Amelia never does that. Her family say she is "irritating" and she repeats it like a mantra, but nothing in the book gives evidence that this is the case. She works her little tail off for her brothers, mostly without complaining.
What I found the most vexing about the book is one of the things that irritated me about Turtle in Paradise as well. May Amelia's parents and brothers act like petulant children. They storm around and make the strangest decisions while the heroine stands there in bewilderment and lands wherever the turbulent adult whims blow her. Until the end when suddenly she's a hero. For the life of me I can't figure out why the adults in the books act the way they do (almost as if their parents were first cousins-I don't know. Maybe they were?).
The books style further irritated me in that there was an Excessive and Unnecessary use of Capital Letters, and a complete lack of quotation marks. Some people find this quirky and artistic. I just find it annoying.
I admit I began the book with a prejudice against it. Being aware of that I really wanted to give it as fair a chance I could. There were scenes I enjoyed, lines that made me laugh. I could certainly see myself recommending this book to certain children I know. It was just not my cup of tea.